Introduction

In 1869, Darwin’s champion Thomas Henry Huxley praised scientific experiment and observation over dogmatism. But his criticisms extended also to the textbook view of mathematics. Huxley said, “The mathematician starts with a few simple propositions, the proof of which is so obvious that they are called self-evident, and the rest of his work consists of subtle deductions from them. . . . Mathematics . . . knows nothing of observation, nothing of experiment.” In reply, the great English algebraist J. J. Sylvester spoke about what he knew from his own work: Mathematics “unceasingly call[s] forth the faculties of observation and comparison . . . it has frequent recourse to experimental trials and verification . . . it affords a boundless scope for the exercise of the highest efforts of imagination and invention.” [3, 204] As a historian of mathematics, I’m with Sylvester. I have long been interested in what mathematicians actually do, and how mathematics actually has developed. I have nothing against textbooks and logically structured subjects. It is just that they represent the finished product, not the creativity that produced it. The past, as L. P. Hartley said in opening his novel The Go-Between, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” [2, 1] Historians provide guidebooks to that past, although mathematicians tend to be more interested in knowing how that foreign past became transformed into the mathematics we know and teach today. Mathematics is incredibly rich and mathematicians have been unpredictably ingenious. Therefore, the history of mathematics is not rationally reconstructible. It must be the subject of empirical investigation. I address the results of my own investigations not principally to other historians, but to mathematicians and teachers of mathematics. The present volume brings together much of what I have tried to say to this audience. In The Calculus as Algebra: J.-L. Lagrange, 1736–1813, I show what Lagrange’s mathematical practice was like, in order to understand the genesis of the rigorous analysis of Cauchy, Bolzano, and Weierstrass. For Lagrange, the calculus was not about rates of change or ratios of differentials, or even about limits as then understood. Lagrange thought that the calculus should be reduced to “the algebraic analysis of finite quantities.” This sounds as though he was about to introduce deltas and epsilons. But instead he believed that there was an algebra of infinite series, and that every function had a power-series expansion except perhaps at finitely many isolated points. Lagrange defined the derivative as the coefficient of the linear term in the function’s power-series expansion. Why he thought this was justified tells us both about his philosophy of mathematics and about the way many mathematicians practiced their subject in the eighteenth century. Euler, for example, did marvelous things by what we would now call the carefree formal manipulation of infinite series, infinite products, and infinite continued fractions. But Lagrange found something else in infinite series as well. He imported what we now call delta-epsilon techniques from the 18th-century study of approximations into some of his proofs about the xi

Understanding and proving the properties of derivatives in terms of a sufficiently powerful and precise concept of limit came even later. ask two types of questions: What was the past like? And. Historians in general.xii A Historian Looks Back: The Calculus as Algebra and Selected Writings concepts of the calculus. the Historian. In “Who Gave You the Epsilon?” I do another thing historians do: making something familiar in the present look strange and unexpected. Knowledge of the history of the relevant mathematical concepts can help the teacher understand what is troubling the student. mathematicians. Bishop Berkeley’s criticisms of arguments about the limit of the ratio of two quantities when the quantities vanish—and the inadequacy of eighteenth-century attempts to answer him in his own terms—recur among very good students. but these men did not see their calculations as examples of calculating rates of change. as I said in that paper. Students can see something else as well. This. For example. Mathematicians solve problems. explore fuzzy ideas. helped build Cauchy’s work in the 1820s on the foundations of analysis.” He justified many results of calculus using inequalities. including the mean-value theorems for derivatives and integrals. Historians. They can be right for the wrong reasons. and the History of Mathematics. and the Lagrange remainder of the Taylor series. and also makes us marvel at the brilliance of our predecessors. make false starts or go in the wrong direction. And the history also lets those of us who learned a subject with ease appreciate which concepts are inherently hard. “The Mathematician.” but they may do this in different ways. historians in the first. and much more. and students can all gain from understanding Lagrange’s grappling with the calculus as algebra. it’s no accident that it took a hundred and eighty years from the understanding of the derivative by Newton and Leibniz to the proofs of Weierstrass. Beginning the study of rigorous calculus with the delta-epsilon definitions of limit and derivative turns this history on its head. Students often have difficulties like those encountered by the mathematicians who invented key ideas. especially for teachers. Both historians and mathematicians can contribute to the history of mathematics. who created these concepts out of such chaos. For instance. Recapturing the history helps us motivate our students’ rediscovery of the concepts. like Lagrange. Properties of varying quantities reaching their maximum or minimum values were discovered and used by people like Fermat and Descartes. When Newton and Leibniz instead explained how such problems were special cases of fluxions or of differential quotients. The story is instructive in many ways.’ but how can a bunch of inequalities somehow turn into two things being equal?” is an excellent question. contrast the older and the modern understandings of the derivative. and I have tried to use both in my own work. ask questions. “The Changing Concept of Change: The Derivative from Fermat to Weierstrass” shows how a key mathematical idea can develop quite differently than in the way we now understand it. “You say ‘can be made as close as you like’ is the same as ‘equals the limit. and only then showing the path by which it came . let alone to use inequalities in so doing. statements like “a function with a positive derivative on an interval is increasing there. And the “right” definitions often come only at the end. as I argue in the earliest of the articles reprinted here. how did the present come to be? Mathematicians more often tend to be interested in the second question. He was the first to attempt to prove. But these two approaches complement one another. they opened the door for research into previously inconceivable topics like differential equations. Thus following difficult and crooked paths to problem solution makes the student part of the mathematical community. and teasing out the distinction between pointwise and uniform convergence to a limit came later still.

as is clear also from works on the psychology of . especially by the French school exemplified by Lagrange. and to portraying that method as inspired by mathematics. and Cauchy. For two thousand years mathematics played a key role in philosophy.” Although it is common to be told that Descartes’ mathematics comes from his general “method. In my three articles on Colin Maclaurin. I try to answer this by explaining what the calculus was like before Cauchy. mathematics provided a non-material “reality” for idealists.” I explore the possibility that it was the other way around. comes from the first letter in the French word for error. Whether it was proof in geometry or the algorithmic power of notation in algebra. and then how different it looked afterwards. however much the new analysis was a gain. multiplying.” which. Contrast Euler’s successful discoveries by adding. Examples of hostility to using mathematics as a model of all human achievement abound as well. empiricists. Lagrange’s achievements came from his rejection of geometric intuition in favor of a commitment to the general and to his appreciation of abstract algebraic structures.” I argue that Maclaurin’s geometric mind-set helped him formulate results in analysis. but it is important to establish and document the phenomenon it describes. “Centrality” may be an awkward word. Lagrange. And the power of Descartes’ new problem-solving method reinforced his philosophical o commitment to renewing all of science by finding the one true method. although modern mathematicians may find it hard to explain to outsiders what they do. I turn to “rehabilitating” a mathematician of lesser reputation than Descartes. and realists to dispute about. which the article presents. Descartes developed a new method to solve problems in geometry. as well as a model for methods of demonstration and discovery. the Calculus as Geometry. Moving from the internal history of mathematics into its cultural setting. “Descartes and Problem-Solving” presents a special case of some of the generalizations in “Centrality. I imagine a student asking how anybody could ever have imagined explaining “the car is going 50 miles per hour” in delta-epsilon terms. from Plato to Spinoza’s Ethics to the Declaration of Independence to Condorcet’s prediction of universal progress. even divergent ones. By contrast. He translated them into algebra. then used the algorithmic power of algebra to transform the original question into something more tractable. this has not always been the case. in “The Centrality of Mathematics in the History of Western Thought” I observe that. Examples abound of mathematics influencing philosophy. In “Was Newton’s Calculus a Dead End? The Continental Influence of Maclaurin’s Treatise of Fluxions” I ask why Maclaurin’s contributions have so often been undervalued—this is social history—and I describe his considerable impact on 18th. The role of approximations in bringing about the change is signaled by the notation “epsilon.and 19th-century Continental analysis. The success of these two different approaches suggests that a diversity of approaches will best promote mathematical progress. with Cauchy’s “A divergent series has no sum” and Abel’s lamenting “Can you imagine anything more horrible” than to claim that 1n − 2n + 3n − 4n + · · · = 0? This change in the agreed-on rules of the game is an example of what historians have come to call a paradigm shift. that oldfashioned geometry hindered progress of mathematics. His focus on problems and the methods of solving them has influenced mathematicians from Newton to P´ lya. Such a change requires an explanation. I argue.Introduction xiii to be. ranging from Pascal to Wordsworth. Observing that Descartes did not have Cartesian coordinates helps understand what he actually did. and finally translated that new “something” back into a geometric construction. and transforming infinite series. In “The Calculus as Algebra. and that the decline of such geometric insight was a loss. It is often considered.

“Why Should Historical Truth Matter to Mathematicians? Dispelling Myths while Promoting Mathematics” began its life as a 20-minute talk at the 2004 Joint Meetings in a session entitled “Truth in Using the History of Mathematics in Teaching Mathematics. in “How Did Lagrange ‘Prove’ the Parallel Postulate?” I return to Lagrange. The universal agreement and clear reasoning of the mathematical sciences were exploited to promote political and social consensus on controversial issues. Finally. This provides an instructive example of the deference to quantitative measures as “objective” and therefore beyond politics. In the case of Lagrange and Euclid’s postulate. We ought to recognize and nourish this variety of approaches as we teach our subject. and the Authority of Mathematics. Mathematics is part of human culture. further illuminates Lagrange’s approach to science and mathematics. the choice of problems.” as well as “Newton invented the calculus in order to do physics” and various long-held but inadequate views about Maclaurin and Lagrange. which is. Maclaurin. I cannot rehabilitate Lagrange’s “proof ” of Euclid’s Fifth Postulate. alive and well today. and how mathematics is taught. In “Newton.” I expanded this talk into a colloquium lecture. then. the applications considered most useful.xiv A Historian Looks Back: The Calculus as Algebra and Selected Writings invention. Mathematics progresses. Second.” I show how Maclaurin internalized the way of doing mathematical physics exemplified in Newton’s Principia. like that of Jacques Hadamard [2]. I hope to show how knowing what actually happened is more valuable in understanding the mathematical experience than any plausible but erroneous story could be. This article also illustrates the authority mathematicians and mathematics were thought to have in the eighteenth century.” “there was no European mathematics in the Middle Ages. Although of course society cannot call mathematical results into being at will. the professionalization of mathematics in the nineteenth century. this time via an unpublished manuscript. First. The universal agreement claimed for these ideas served as a model for the philosophy of the Enlightenment. has a lot to teach us. In the current version of the paper. misconceptions about the history of the calculus were not the only important ones for me to address. and after I gave it to several mathematical audiences. mathematicians are especially interested in seeing the record set straight when doing this can promote mathematics and improve its teaching. I address myths like “all important mathematics is done by men and within the European tradition. and then applied it to solve problems ranging from the shape of the earth to the computation of annuities. no “success” arose from Lagrange’s approach to this problem. The history of mathematics. Mathematicians’ creative ideas can come from within mathematics or from the wider society. as well as casting light on the broader intellectual and social concerns of Continental society. with different examples each time. and for its search for universally-accepted truths by reason. but also by transforming . we have the mutual influences of geometry and the arts. and the increasing need for mathematicians to teach.” and “the mathematical approach can be applied to settle any major question. And. not only by using and extending the prevailing ideas and techniques. unlike Lagrange’s power-series definition of the derivative. society can and does influence a great deal: for instance. Mathematical progress cannot be programmed. especially from the time of the French Revolution onward. That’s why the history of mathematics is interesting. two conclusions became more and more apparent. And mathematics answers questions of interest and importance to the society around it. and space was the really existing framework for Newtonian mechanics. The episode. Euclidean geometry was thought to embody the true nature of space. though. for good or ill. For Enlightenment thinkers.

Karen Hunger. 2. . Princeton University Press. The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. References 1. I hope the present volume can contribute to these goals. Baltimore. Jacques. The Go-Between. Hartley. 1945. London. help teachers. Appreciating all of this can attract students. 2006.. 1954. Parshall. and inspire researchers. explore. Johns Hopkins. discover. P. Dover reprint. and develop concepts and techniques—to risk being incomplete or even wrong. Hadamard. Progress depends on people being willing to use.Introduction xv and transcending them. James Joseph Sylvester: Jewish Mathematician in a Victorian World. L. 3. 1953.

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